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'Oliver!' at Marriott Theatre

Tis' the season when many theaters turn to Dickensian fare, but at Marriott Theatre, young Oliver Twist rather than Tiny Tim takes the stage. Nick Bowling directs Lionel Bart's OLIVER!, the 1960 musical based on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. With music direction by Ryan T. Nelson and choreography by Brenda Didier, a talented cast of child and adult actors delivers Bart's eminently hummable, if not groundbreaking, tunes. Though certain aspects of the material are irremediably dated, overall this is an entertaining revival of a (mostly) family-friendly show.

Bowling's vision for the opening scene does Dickens proud. Set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec frames the stage with gas lamps and iron latticework that evoke Victorian London, and a lavish feast is set on a long banquet table. Several anonymous gentlemen, evidently well-off and well-fed, gorge upon the meal while a band of hungry workhouse orphans performs the opening number, "Food, Glorious Food." This visible contrast between the excess of the wealthy and the desperation of the poor highlights Dickens' career-long theme of social reform.

When the orphans sit down to their own meager meal of gruel, Oliver emerges from the crowd with his famous plea, "Please sir, I want some more." On press night, pint-sized Kai Edgar performed the title role, which he alternates with Kayden Koshelev. Though a very young actor making his professional debut, Edgar's remarkably sweet vocals charmed the audience. Indeed the entire ensemble who play the workhouse boys--and later, Fagin's gang of pickpockets--give better performances than I've seen from child actors in a long time.

Like many of Dickens' novels, Oliver Twist was first published in serial form, with monthly installments appearing in a magazine over the course of two years. In order to hold readers' attention, Dickens constantly introduced highly colorful characters, many of which come and go quickly. This structure is readily apparent in the musical, as Oliver drifts from the workhouse to a funeral home to the streets of London.

Along the way, he crosses paths with a pompous parish beadle, aptly named Mr. Bumble (Matthew R. Jones), and the stern widow Mrs. Corney (Bethany Thomas), whom Bumble woos and weds to his eventual regret. When this mismatched pair sells Oliver as an apprentice to an undertaker, Jason Grimm and Caron Buinis give memorable turns as the comically macabre Mr. and Mrs. Sowerberry. Oliver escapes their clutches and makes his way to London, where the Artful Dodger befriends him. Patrick Scott McDermott plays the child pickpocket with just the right amount of swagger, outfitted by costume designer Sally Dolembo in a dapper but threadbare red coat, waistcoat, cravat and top hat.

Dodger initiates Oliver into the gang of children lodging with career criminal Fagin, who employs them in stealing wallets and handkerchiefs to pay their keep. Veteran actor William Brown gives an affable turn as Fagin, avoiding the role's more comedic or menacing possibilities. This makes Fagin's implied change of heart at the show's end more believable, and, importantly, undermines the role's history of anti-Semitic stereotypes. However, Fagin's character arc falls somewhat flat. Early on, he isn't threatening enough to sustain the sense of danger to Oliver. Later, his solo number slows the pace and detracts from the central conflict, while its reprise makes for an abrupt final scene.

Lucy Godinez, a talented young actress on the rise in Chicago theater, plays Nancy--friend to Fagin and the boys--with the self-sufficient toughness and confident charisma of a grown orphan used to looking after herself. That is, until her abusive boyfriend, Fagin's sinister colleague Bill Sikes (Dan Waller), threatens her into helping him kidnap Oliver back from the house of kind Mr. Brownlow (Terry Hamilton). Godinez delivers Nancy's signature ballad, "As Long as He Needs Me," with a powerful belt that would fill a much larger theater. Through no fault of the performer's, this song about faithfulness to a violent partner sits uneasily today, nearly 60 years after the musical premiered. Though Nancy has a dynamic character arc throughout Act II, it's hard to reconcile her submission to Bill with everything else we see of her early on.

Nancy's fate is certainly dark for a family show; perhaps it's wise to leave the youngest ones at home if you don't want them to witness domestic violence on stage. On the other hand, Bart's popular score and the adorable child actors provide plenty of uplifting moments, and the character actors in the supporting roles add humor. Though not all of the material stands the test of time, Marriott Theatre offers a worthy revival of a perennial favorite.